How Technology Can Save Doomed Male Chicks

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By Danica Lo Posted October 31, 2016

The mass slaughter of baby boy chickens might be prevented by earlier egg screenings.

It's an accepted, but not-often-discussed, fact of the egg production industry that hundreds of millions—300 million, according to some estimates—of male chicks are sent to the grinder in the United States each year. It's a cruel reality, but for egg producers it makes practical sense—after all, boy chicks can't lay eggs.

Egg producers around the country are banding together to seek a solution to this mass destruction. The United Egg Producers announced earlier this year that they would take steps to end the practice of male chick culling by 2020– and the answer might lie in the hands of new technology.

Some producers are already taking steps towards a less murderous, preventative solution. Vital Farms works with a company called Novatrans to identify the sex of a fertilized egg weeks before it enters into incubation and starts to develop beyond an embryonic stage. According to NPR, a couple of days after an egg is laid, even if it's fertilized, "It's still possible to sell the eggs containing male embryos as regular edible eggs."

In the Netherlands, a company called In Ovo has developed a technology that analyzes allantoic fluid extracted from an egg via needle. By running the fluid through a mass spectrometer, scientists can sex an egg with 95 percent accuracy. Meanwhile, just north of New York, the Egg Farmers of Ontario are working with McGill scientist Michael Ngadi on a way to sex eggs just by "shining a light through them."

Researchers at the University of Leipzig in Germany have also been utilizing light— in laser form. "The group uses a laser to cut out a hole less than a quarter-inch wide in the shell, shining infrared light onto the web of blood vessels inside," Sarah Zhang reports. "Based on how the light scatters, they can figure out whether the chick has male or female chromosomes."

"United Egg Producers and our egg farmer members support the elimination of day-old male chick culling," the UEP's President and CEO Chad Gregory says. "We are aware that there are a number of international research initiatives underway in this area, and we encourage the development of an alternative." The CEO adds that they'll adopt a solution as soon as it's economically possible. 

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